Football coach's libel suit dismissed after court rules match-fixing story ‘substantially true’

Court dismisses libel claim against newspaper Illum over article revealing football coach Adrian Farrugia was charged with corruption and match-fixing in Italy

Adrian Farrugia (inset)
Adrian Farrugia (inset)

A court has dismissed a libel claim filed against Maltese-language newspaper Illum by football coach Adrian Farrugia over an interview with a referee who revealed that Farrugia had been charged with corruption and match-fixing in Italy.

In a decision handed down today, Magistrate Rachel Montebello declared the allegations to be substantially true.

The libel suit had been filed in a bid to discredit statements made by Jude Amin Utulu during an interview with defendant Liam Carter who had penned the article published on the 16th June 2019 in the printed edition of MaltaToday’s sister newspaper Illum, and later uploaded on Illum’s online news portal. Registered editor Saviour Balzan also appeared as co-defendant.

The article in question was an interview with Utulu, conducted by Carter, which dealt with Utulu’s suspension by the Malta Football Association after the association’s Board of Discipline had investigated allegations that Utulu had acted as an agent on behalf of football players at a time when he was also a registered professional referee. The allegations had been made following a match between Mosta and Balzan for which Utulu had acted as referee, where Mosta lost with a score of 3-1.

Utulu was reported as having stated that his version was not believed by the Malta Football Association (MFA) Board that investigated the allegations made in his regard by plaintiff Adrian Farrugia, and that the Board instead decided to believe the plaintiff who, he claims, is a match-fixer (bagħbas il-logħob).

Defendant Utulu is reported as having stated in the interview that plaintiff Adrian Farrugia, who was the coach of Mosta Football Club, had asked him to recommend five Nigerian football players who might be interested to play in Malta and that he had put plaintiff into contact with a Nigerian friend of his - a football agent based in England - in order to help Nigerian players come to play football in Malta. He denied having ever received any monies or payment of any sort for his role in this affair, insisting that his communications with Farrugia were all above board.

A statement which followed the MFA’s investigation made no mention of the club involved or of Adrian Farrugia. Utulu claimed to have been unjustly treated by the MFA and insisted that he had never attempted to fix any matches.

Utulu is quoted as telling Carter that Farrugia, his brother and former Vittoriosa Stars FC director general Felice Bellini featured in court proceedings in Italy, having been implicated in a match-fixing investigation by the Italian police, codenamed “Dirty Soccer.”

Farrugia had testified in the libel case, denying any involvement in match-fixing or other illegalities and complaining that Illum had not approached him for comment before running the article.

Saviour Balzan had also presented an affidavit, to which he had attached several articles from local and Italian media about the investigation.

“There can be hardly any doubt that the basis of the opinion of defendant Utulu that claimant has not been suspended by the MFA notwithstanding his involvement in match-fixing and manipulation of football matches, is abundantly indicated in the article where it is stated that four years earlier, the Italian Police had implicated claimant in an investigation, known as ‘Dirty Soccer’, into bribery relating to Italian football, and in ongoing criminal proceedings involving also his brother Robert Farrugia and a certain Felice Bellini,” observed the court.

The magistrate, after seeing the various publications in local and foreign media that had been exhibited by the defendants, held that “an honest person could have held the opinion on the basis of privileged statements published before the statement complained of, which asserted as a fact that claimant was not only suspected, but indeed prosecuted before the courts of Lamezia Terme for committing the crime of ‘sports fraud’.“

News reports alleging Farrugia to be involved in match-fixing and illegal sports betting syndicates had been published as far back as May 2015, noted the court, observing that the Farrugia brothers had been described as “financiers” in the illegal match-fixing operations. The head of the Catanzaro Police, who had investigated the Dirty Soccer scandal had been reported as stating that although several arrests had taken place in Italy, the Farrugia brothers were not arrested as they were not in Italy.

The evidence tendered by Balzan showed that in April 2019, both local and Italian media had extensively reported on the arraignment of the Farrugia brothers by the Procuratore della Repubblica di Lamezia Terme, on charges of having committed the crime of sports fraud and that their ‘antimafia’ trial was ongoing.

The Court said it was “thoroughly satisfied” that these publications, which asserted as a fact the claim that Adrian Farrugia was investigated and ultimately prosecuted before the Courts in Italy for criminal offences in connection with match-fixing, relate to a matter of public interest, as required for a successful defence at Maltese law.

Utulu’s defence of fair comment, considered as a plea of honest opinion was therefore upheld by the court.

Balzan, Carter and Gauci Cunningham’s defence was that the statements published did not contain false allegations. The court observed that Farrugia had never denied that he was being prosecuted for the crimes mentioned and had brought no evidence to show that the articles exhibited were not authentic or that he had been acquitted in the Italian criminal proceedings. The defendants, on the other hand, had exhibited a large array of articles published on the subject in both the local and international media during 2018 and 2019.

As for the statement that no action had been taken by the MFA against the plaintiff who was not suspended by the MFA despite having been charged with fraud in connection with his alleged involvement in match fixing and in an illegal betting ring in Italy, the court said it agreed that this statement also appeared to be essentially be true.

It was noted that Farrugia himself had confirmed that he had never been investigated by the Police in Malta or by the MFA and remains actively involved in the local football scene with Mosta FC to this day.

“The logical corollary of such a statement is that plaintiff was not suspended by the MFA and that therefore, the statement …is substantially true.”

Having upheld the defence of substantial truth, the court dismissed the rest of the pleas by the defendants and declared that the article in question was not libellous or defamatory and dismissed Adrian Farrugia’s demands, also ordering him to bear the full costs of the case.

Lawyers Veronique Dalli and Andrew Saliba represented the defendants.